Is “Chainsaw Al”‘s Legacy a Thing of the Past?

By: | March 6, 2019 • 4 min read
David Shadovitz is editor emeritus and former editor and co-publisher for HRE.

One of the business world’s most notorious leaders from the 1990s died at age 81 on Jan. 25.

As CEO of Scott Paper and later Sunbeam Corp. in the mid-to-late ’90s, Al Dunlap was well known for his hard-nosed, unapologetic style of business leadership. During his tenure at Scott and Sunbeam, he orchestrated plant closures and major layoffs, earning himself the nickname Chainsaw Al. (He also was known as “the Shredder” and “Rambo in Pinstripes.”) At Scott, he laid off 11,200 workers, while at Sunbeam he basically halved the workforce by around 12,000 workers. (He was said to be extremely tough on those who remained.)

As John Byrne writes in his 1999 book Chainsaw: The Notorious Career of Al Dunlap in an Era of Profit at Any Price, “Chainsaw Al was a creation of [Wall] Street and its ceaseless lust for profit at any cost. He came of age when the market routinely rewarded layoffs with lofty stock prices.”

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In his book, Byrne points out that “True leaders are not ambitious for themselves. They are ambitious for their companies … . True leaders demonstrate compassion and respect for those who devote their professional lives to an organization. True leaders believe in shared sacrifice. They invest for the long term because they believe there will be a long term.”

That, apparently, wasn’t Dunlap, who was fired by Sunbeam’s board after being accused of accounting fraud, though he was never convicted of a crime. (In 2002, he paid $15 million to settle a lawsuit brought by shareholders, though he never admitted any wrongdoing.)

Of course, Dunlap was hardly the first CEO to embrace such an extreme approach to leadership—nor will he likely be the last. But as many of the obits published in January remind us, he seemed to take heartless leadership to a new level, leaving a legacy few CEOs would want to replicate—or CHROs would want to be a part of.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence, then, that Fortune magazine launched its 100 Best Companies to Work For the very same year Dunlap lost his job at Sunbeam. Around that time, it seemed as though more and more business leaders were beginning to wake up to the fact that their people (or, using today’s vernacular, talent) were their enterprises’ secret sauce, the key ingredient in their businesses’ success.

Which brings us to today. At least for me, the level of attention being paid these days to employee engagement and workplace experience is further evidence of how far businesses have come.

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